Udall Undergraduate Scholarship

Meet Our Scholars - Alumni Spotlights - Jerilyn Church

Jerilyn is the CEO of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Board provides public health support and health care advocacy to the tribal nations of the Great Plains.

It feels good to be home; I grew up on the Cheyenne River Reservation. I lived with my grandparents in a two room house that had no running water. The stove that we cooked on also heated the house. When I look back, I realize that my grandfather was such an optimist and a dreamer; both he and my grandmother encouraged me to get an education. It was a very poor, but loving household to grow up in.

I was a stay-at-home mom for years; when I finally decided to go to college at Michigan State University, my husband was my biggest supporter. The decision was life-changing for me, and has enabled me to put feet to my desire to give back to my community. As a non-traditional student with a BIE education, I lacked confidence. I needed help with some of the most basic tasks that younger students took for granted; how to use a calculator, how to do research online. But the professors and guidance counselors in the School of Social Work were wonderful mentors; I was challenged to improve and refine my writing, and was exposed to new skill sets. I even exceeded my own expectations, and it was such an incredible boost to my confidence.

If someone were to ask me if they should go back to school, I would tell them: Put all fear aside; if there is a hunger for knowledge, don’t be afraid of it; jump into school with both feet. Share your fears and vulnerabilities with those around you, with your instructors and faculty; ask for help.

When one of my professors wanted to nominate me for the Udall Scholarship, I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t need the money; I already had the Michigan Indian tuition waiver. I was busy, and I didn’t have time to work on the application. But my professor told me, this is a prestigious scholarship, and the School of Social Work wants to nominate you. So I applied. The recognition of being a Udall Scholar gave me a certain credibility in academic circles, even among other students.

I learned early on that to succeed, I need to reach out for help and find people who have the skill sets that I don’t have. I always try to hire people who are smarter and brighter than me. I see my role at the Health Board as that of facilitator; I bring the most committed and passionate staff together to tackle the issues. I love doing that. I enjoy nurturing young talent and creating space for them to spread their wings. I think because I found my career late in life, my strengths are being able to articulate a vision, to identify what the challenges are and how to address them.

My biggest challenges at the Health Board are the incredible health disparities in our region, which are some of the worst in Indian country. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by all there is to do, but I just continue to plug away and move us forward. I never forget that this is where I came from; this is where I belong.